Florida panther, ©Connie Bransilver/USFWS

Protecting the Florida Panther Means Recommitting to Recovery

The Florida panther is one of the Sunshine State’s most iconic species. Pushed out of their original range, which once encompassed all of the southeastern United States, the last remnants of the panther population were isolated at the southern tip of the Florida peninsula. In the 1970s when researchers set out to determine if wild pumas still existed in the state, they found evidence that perhaps 12- 20 animals still roamed forests, swamps and prairies across a mix of public and private lands. Today, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) estimates there are between 100 and 180 Florida panther adults in the wild. Brought back from the brink of extinction through the conservation efforts of federal, state, and local partners, the cat stands as a symbol of what we can accomplish when we fight to save an endangered animal. But the panther’s future is by no means secure yet.

FWC held what proved to be a tense meeting late last month. Conservation groups and concerned citizens alike had seen the FWC’s proposed new policy on Florida panthers – officially called the draft FWC Panther Position Statement – and were alarmed at what it could mean for these endangered cats.

In their position statement, the FWC recommended that the agency pull back on Florida panther recovery efforts. Instead of continuing to help Florida panthers expand their range, they would focus their staff and funding on panther management only where the one known breeding population exists in south Florida. The statement also suggested that FWC would not be actively assisting in recovery north of the Caloosahatchee River and Lake Okeechobee until conflicts in south Florida were resolved. Lastly, FWC claimed that the recovery goals for Florida panthers need to be changed.Florida panther, © Glen Stacell

For decades, FWC has played a vital role in panther conservation in Florida. Revenue raised by Florida drivers voluntarily purchasing the panther vehicle license plate fund FWC’s excellent research and management team that have been essential to the success so far in restoring the health and numbers of panthers in south Florida. Instead of scaling back their work on panther recovery, they should build on that past panther conservation legacy, and recommit to continuing the progress they helped bring about for this species.

The benchmarks for helping Florida panthers recover were founded in science – and the suggestion in the position statement to back away from those goals because they are difficult to achieve was not. It was clear that the agency was heading in the direction of making decisions for the panthers’ future based on maintaining the population at a level that satisfies the interests of certain stakeholders in the region– not what was best for the species.

FWC is right to highlight the need for real action and solutions to prevent conflicts between humans and panthers which have been increasing in recent years. Both human and panther populations in Florida have been growing – livestock conflicts, panther deaths by vehicle collision and habitat loss are all important issues that need to be addressed. We do need to increase human tolerance for these predators, work to prevent panther predation on livestock and establish and fund incentives for landowners to protect much-needed panther habitat. That’s why it’s more important than ever that federal and state conservation agencies work to move the species recovery forward. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in particular needs to step up and provide more leadership and support for this endangered species.
Many concerned citizens testified at the FWC meeting, including members of our Florida team.

Defenders submitted detailed comments to FWC, and in our testimony, we cautioned strongly against the proposed changes in the agency’s policies and programs that could compromise panther recovery. Fortunately, they listened. The Commissioners decided to continue working on the statement and bring it back for discussion at their September meeting. We will continue to provide input and encourage the agencies to strengthen their partnership and commitment to panther recovery. They need to take the time to have a constructive dialogue with all interested partners to develop a collaborative, science-based plan for moving forward.

The job of panther recovery is by no means finished, and with promising programs in the works to help resolve conflicts and increase tolerance for the panther’s return to the landscape, now is not the time for FWC to back away. Decades ago, federal and state wildlife agencies, public and private interests, worked together and created an innovative strategy to bring the Florida panther back from the brink of extinction. And it’s this kind of collaboration, planning and program implementation that we need now.

You Can Help

Today’s Florida panthers exist in a tiny fraction of their historic range – and their habitat is still shrinking. Ask USFWS to step up panther recovery efforts and give these cats more room to roam.

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10 Responses to “Protecting the Florida Panther Means Recommitting to Recovery”

  1. Sheila Butler

    Humanity at this point in history has to make the important vital everlasting decision to RESPECT and RESTORE or be known as the GENERATION OF EXTINCTION !

  2. Teresa Milton

    Thank you Laurie, very well said! We can NEVER give up because the task is difficult, this is the time we should come together even more than ever and work harder to come up with a solution.

  3. Olivia DuPlessis

    Collaboration and creative, innovative solutions are direly needed. Federal and State Wildlife authorities need to look at what other places have tried. In Alaska I think they looked at sounds to keep bears away from human places, i.e. conflict resolutions. I rooting for the Panther/Puma to survive beyond its current level because it is a magnificent animal. I will do whatever it takes and I hope the State of Florida will too.

  4. shirley robinson

    we need to protect our wildlife . stop trying to kill them off.. they are important to our eco system.

  5. Randy Johnson

    Please do not remove protections for the Florida Panther. We are supposed to be shepherds of the Earth, not king of all animals. I do not accept a Florida that does not care about wildlife.

  6. Finlay Duncan

    Hey, great blog!
    We’re looking for some help from the other side of the pond – Nature in Europe is under threat from lawmakers! The European Union wants to review 2 laws, called the Birds Directive and the Habitats Directive, despite the fact they’ve led to the creation of thousands of new conservation sites AND increased numbers of at-risk birds, animals and plants in Europe.
    We have until Friday to put our names to a public consultation on this (more information’s available here: http://www.tiny.cc/naturealert) calling on them to leave the laws alone and not undermine them. Every voice counts, any help is greatly appreciated!

  7. Larry Allan, Sarasota, FL,

    The “easy way” is to follow the path presently outlined by the FWC, but the RIGHT WAY is to improve upon their plan, as outlined by Laurie above. We must insist that the FWC — which is supposed to serve all the people of Florida, not just a select few — conserves panthers, not simply manages them.

  8. Gaylene Vasaturo

    Laurie, Thank you for your statement…and all the work you have done through the years to represent Florida citizens and others who support continued work to recover the Florida panther and efforts to protect adequate habitat to maintain the existing population. There are currently many forces at work to develop the panther habitat in Collier County (where I live).
    The new FWC policy position was drafted by a new Commissioner (Lisa Priddy) who is a rancher that owns 2000 acres in the Rural Lands area, an important panther habitat. According to Ms. Priddy, where the FWC position paper states that panthers have exceeded “carrying capacity,” she meant that the panther population has exceeded the local ranchers and farmers tolerance levels. It would seem that Ms. Priddy has a conflict of interest in drafting a new FWC policy towards Florida panthers which in effect serves her interests.

  9. Val collins

    As defenders of wildlife is keenly aware, Panther in Florida is now considered a nuisance animal, ( note Frank cerabino’s article in the Palm Beach Post today (August
    25, 2015 “developers most protected species in Florida”.

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